journal 3/10/04

His name was Hilton. He and I used to hang out at the same comic book store in the late 1970s. One day, he pointed at a comic book in the rack, called Cerebus the Aardvark, and insisted I buy it. That issue the first one I bought, was #6. The comic was a funny animal parody of Conan the Barbarian and similar books, and the main character was an aardvark.

It was amusing, but I wasn't a big fan of swords-and-sorcery comics, or of funny animal comics. Hilton, apparently sensing that I wasn't as caught up with this new discovery as I was, came back the next day and gave me the first five issues. I thought they were good enough that I continued to follow the book. One factor was probably that I helped out around the store enough that usually I got the new books for free.

At that point, it must have been around 1978, there were three independent comics which were at all successful. One was Elfquest, which was sort of the reigning champ. Elfquest was projected to go for fifteen issues, which was considered a very successful run for an independent comic. Another was called Something Kingdom (First Kingdom, maybe) by Jack somebody. I didn't read that one. And there was Cerebus. All other comics were produced by large companies which paid the artists and writers by the page. Creators didn't own their creations, and some (like the creators of Superman) were nearly broke.

(One of my babysitters when I was young was the wife of one of the men who created Superman, which tells you something about the financial shape they were in at that time.)

Almost nobody did independent comics because the conventional wisdom was that they couldn't succeed, and at least mainstream comics gave you a paycheck.

Dave Sim, the writer and artist of Cerebus the Aardvark, was one of the ones who proved this wrong. Elfquest was supposed to go fifteen issues, and ended up going twenty, but Cerebus went over 25, coming out every month more or less on schedule. But, after issue #25, three significant things happened.

One was that the episodic nature of the book changed. The first 25 issues had been self-contained stories, mostly humorous, with a lot of parodies of comic book and fantasy characters. Some stories went two or three issues, but that was it. Issue #25 through Issue #50 formed one story, called "High Society," in which the barbarian aardvark went to the city, gained influence (much his surprise) and eventually became Prime Minister.

The second significant thing was that Dave Sim took on another artist, named Gerhard, to draw the backgrounds. And, in line with his views on creators' rights, and despite the fact that their contributions to the book were not even close to equivalent, he made Gerhard his equal partner. They each owned 50% of the entire project.

The third significant thing was that, somewhere in there, Dave Sim announced that Cerebus the Aardvark would go 300 issues, it would form one coherent, continuous narrative, and it would end with the death of the main character.

This was widely regarded as an idle boast, at best, just a bit of hubris from an enormously talented artist who was also, much to everybody's surprise, making a lot of money with his aardvark comic.

I was writing a novel some time after that (I recently resumed working on it) and it included a series called "The Ten Pillars of Modern Literature," which was designed, among other thing, to talk about some of the works which I had been inspired by in doing the project. This was the first:

The Ten Pillars of Modern Literature (#1)
Dave Sim

Dave Sim is writing a novel, and publishing it himself in
monthly, 20-page installments.  When it's done it'll be 6,000
pages long.  People laughed at this idea when he started, but now
that he's over half-way done, and making a healthy income for
himself in the process, they have to admit that he may very well
make it.

It's an extraordinary work, funny and complex and irritating and
beautiful.  The main character has been Prime Minister and Pope,
he's been in love with one woman, married a second and raped a
third.  He's been completely broke, and has had all the money in
the world.  He already knows the exact date of his death, and
that he will die friendless and alone.  The story is about equal
parts politics, metaphysics, romance, war and humor.

Oh, by the way, the main character is an aardvark.  It's a comic
book.  

Today, I bought Issue #300 of Cerebus ("the Aardvark" was dropped from the title somewhere along the way).

Cerebus the character is dead, and Cerebus the comic book has ended, so this is a good time to think about what an achievement this has been. Remember Elfquest and its big success story of twenty issues? This is 300 issues, 6,000 pages. All created and owned by two men. There is nothing to compare it to. But that's not even the most amazing part of it. The most amazing part is how good it is.

The writing has been uneven (hey, it's been over a quarter of a century, every single month, what do you expect?), but, as I said back in the early 1990s, it's been extraordinary and funny and complex and irritating and beautiful. There have been characters based on Hemingway, Groucho Marx, Oscar Wilde, Spiderman, Fitzgerald and the Three Stooges (among many others). Some of it has been unbearably tedious and some of it has been wildly funny.

And all of it has been incredibly well drawn. I don't know much about art except what you can glean from reading comic books for 40 years, but Sim and Gerhard have been getting better and better and better. Both in their drawing, their line work and attention to detail, and also in their page layouts, which are far beyond what I've seen anywhere else.

Oh, and lettering. Letters I do know something about, and Dave Sim is the best letterer since Walt Kelly. Period.

He is also (pick one or more) a nut, a misogynist, a fundamentalist, a feminist-hater, a kook, a troglodyte, a neanderthal, or a devout and principled man. When he started the comic, he drank, smoked, stayed in the best hotels and slept with women other than his wife. He was basically a comic book artist living like a rock star.

Then he read the Bible, the Koran and the Talmud as research for one of the chapters of Cerebus, and he believed all of them. He no longer smokes, drinks or has much of anything to do with women. He prays a prayer of his own creation, five times every day. The back pages of the comic have been filled for a long time with long, involved and heavily researched text pieces where he expounds his ideas (women should know their place, as God intended, feminists and homosexuals are ruining everything, everybody should place their lives in God's hands, etc.), and even the most enthusiastic fans tend to skim over those. His secretary quit rather than type them, and almost nobody in the comic book world will talk with (or about) him anymore.

I can't immediately think of anything he and I agree about,* and I don't think that his art can be completely separated from his beliefs (particularly true in this case, since the beliefs are pretty much woven through the work). But I also think that quality is quality, and sometimes works of art contain and show a world which has more sides than the creator sees or intends. And I can't think of another example where you can watch a single work of art evolve over this amount of time, as the creator's ideas change so much.

I thought about Dave Sim recently when reading about Bobby Fischer, who was at one point the best chess player in the world (by far), and also (as it said in Time Magazine this week), "an antisocial, anti-Semitic egomaniac." He could and did beat himself from time to time, but nobody else came close. Sim is something like that, though he is far more self-aware than it seems Fischer is. His worldview may not have much humor to it, but his writing has as much as it ever did, including about himself.

Bethany asked me if it bothered me that Sim's opinions are so anti-woman. I said, no not really (though if I came upon the book for the first time now, I don't think I'd pick it up, but you get attached to something over 25+ years), because he doesn't represent anything or anybody besides himself, he is not a leader and he has no followers, he has no political influence (or any other kind). More people saw The Passion of the Christ in the first two hours than have ever even heard of Dave Sim or Cerebus.

People with power are much more frightening than a lone nut here and there. Especially one who is so entertaining. If Dave Sim were a powerful man in Hollywood, or in Washington, I'd be a lot more worried.

And, to make it clear, Dave Sim and Gerhard are equal owners of Cerebus, but the ideas and the writing are all Sim's. Gerhard has remained very silent over all these years, I've never seen an interview with him, and nobody even knows if he has a name other than simply "Gerhard."

Now that this whole thing is over, I'm wondering if he'll speak out more. I'd love to read an interview with him, to find out what he thinks of all this, and of his co-creator.

_____________________
* I did think of one thing Dave Sim and I agree about, and that's creators' rights in the comic book world. He has been tireless and articulate in fighting for the rights of comic book writers and artists to own what they create. And, of course, he's been rather immodest about using himself as an example of how you can publish yourself and be successful, but at this point he's earned the right to be immodest about that.

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